“Aranyani: The forest as the feminine principle.
The Goddess of the forest. The primary source of life and fertility.
Forest as a community has been viewed as a model for societal and civilizational evolution.”
—Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India, 1988
Forest defense actions have led to the development of important movements of resistance throughout history, and the fostering of organizational principles in the evolution of societies and the preservation of certain ecosystems endangered by human greed. The colonial perspective, which sees forests as empty lands, and the wood they “store” in the form of trees as wealth, has transformed the forests from a common resource for localized use to the benefit of the local community to a commodity for commercial use under bureaucratic control. (1)
In history, women and ecology have been in danger of being crushed under this colonialist, male-dominated culture, even though nature is both in an ontological continuum with and above humans. As a source of life, nature has a great place in many cultures, among them Indian culture. To put it in a specific sense, we can say that the diversity, harmony, and self-sufficiency of the forest have guided the basic and organizational principles of Indian civilization. (2) The Chipko movement that developed in the 1970s to resist deforestation in the mountain ranges located in the Indian state of Uttarakhand is a good example of that. The Chipko was a peaceful, social, and ecological movement run by rural peasant women in the Himalayan region of India. Although the Chipko resistance was not the first successful movement to save forests and protect trees in India's history, it is one that is well-documented from the recent past. (2) Peculiar to this action was their technique of resistance, which included natives of the region hugging the trees to prevent them from falling. Indeed, chipko means “to hug” in Hindi. The women who clung to the trees declared that the lumberjacks had to kill them before cutting them down.(2)
After the Uttarkashi disaster in 1978, which caused flooding in the Bengal region that reached as far as Calcutta, almost two thousand kilometers away, the Indian government legitimized this action by acknowledging that the reconstruction costs of the flooded region far exceeded the income drawn from timber. The government went on to extend support to Chipko activism in 1981, by banning over 1,000 kilometers of logging in the Garhwal Himalayas. Today, the Indian government policy recognizes that conservation in the fragile Himalayas is necessary in order to maximize the forest's ecology. (2)
Echoing the instinctive impulse from the Chipko actions, and partially encouraged by Gazi Park resistance, a movement against gold mining has risen in Turkey's Mount Ida (Kazdağları), Çanakkale. The province of Çanakkale lies on both sides of the crucial Dardanelles waterways which connect the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean Sea. Çanakkales shores touch both Europe (with the Gelibolu, or Gallipoli, peninsula) and Asia (with the Biga Peninsula) with a population of approximately 560,000. The extraction of gold in Kazdağları beginning in 2019 has led people from all walks of life in Turkey to come together and rise up, turning into a great resistance. The trees cut down for the gold mine—the aftermath of Canadian gold mining company Alamos Gold setting its sights on the region—can be counted as only part of the damages done to the region, as the fate of all underground and above-ground natural resources and drinking waters have been endangered.
In April 2022, I met with Ferzan Aktaş, one of the Kazdağları protestors and an activist from the Kazdağları Kardeşliği initiative.
How long have the actions against gold mines been going on in Kazdağları ?
The Çanakkale Environmental Organization has been fighting legal battles against gold mining in the region for years, but the specific fight against gold mines in Kazdağları has been going on for more than a decade. However, this struggle became visible to the public all over Turkey and abroad only in 2019, when Alamos Gold started felling trees in the Kirazlı village.
Alamos Gold actually got its first license in 2010, and it has three projects on the Kazdağları: Ağı Mountain, Kirazlı and Çamyurt. In 2013, the company received a green light from the government's Environmental Ministry, based on its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). This meant that the destructive impacts of Alamos Gold’s project on the environment became acceptable, neglecting the use of extremely damaging, explosive open-pit methods. After only a month and a half of mining in Kazdağları, the area was already terribly impacted. Since 2013, a legal battle against this decision has been ongoing between protesters and the company.
Kirazlı is an area with its own ecosystem, located 35 kilometers from the center of Çanakkale. In fact, it is also one of the most important natural areas of Turkey. Kirazlı, which is intended to be mined, is the only drinking and use water source for Çanakkale and for the water collection basin of Atikhisar dam. With the onset of the protestors’ vigil, the protest reached a critical stage. The danger of water contamination has provoked a very serious reaction from the people of Çanakkale and all over Turkey. It’s clear that this issue should really sit on the national agenda.
At what point did the movement escalate from a protest to an occupation?
When no legal measure was taken in 2013 and digging and logging started in the field, the municipality of Çanakkale made a call for a deterrent guard duty. People from all over Turkey flocked to Çanakkale to defend the Kazdağları. There was a constant deterrent-watch. On August 5, 2019, nearly 20,000 people came to the mine site after a call for a “big meeting.” Meanwhile, the company had to stop working.
The site occupied was not the mine, but an area of the forest that is also thought of as a picnic area, because it is close to the water. There was a forest building inside, with no roof, no glass; it was a pile of garbage, a ruin, which we took over. We needed shelter. Part of our strategy was that we wanted to be living close to the water, so that it's not a settlement, it's not in the village—it's within the area, but it’s not directly in the village; it's 35 kilometers from the city. We had to create a habitat and position ourselves in a way that we could best observe the work in the mine. Right behind us was Balaban Hill, which the company wanted to blow up and extract ore from. We observed that hill from the best possible angles and tried to live our own lives there.
The Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say performed at the Kirazlı watch area. Thousands of people came on the day of the concert. There's been a lot of support. Other than that, people came in their tents and joined the vigil. Some stayed for a month, some stayed for two days.
What was the strategy of the occupation? What did your decision-making processes look like, and what were the difficult parts?
About 20 days after the Fazil Say concert, the governor's office came after us with serious pressure. They forced us to end the vigil by evacuating the tent presidium, but we, as environmental activists, didn't think that it was right because the company hadn't left the site, and they couldn't work as long as we were there. The municipality, which initiated the occupation withdrew, but our group of independent protestors continued to shift. We reached consensus by forum decision; we made joint decisions. Everyone who was there had a say. In the end, our watch of the site lasted about 425 days.
It was easier to shelter there in the summer, because we could draw water from the Balaban Fountain. In the winter, it’s more challenging, because it’s a very seriously cold place and it snows heavily. It gets harder to stay in tents. In the meantime, we were able to maintain our presence there in total solidarity financially. We have seen real solidarity from all over Turkey. We never got paid, but people were sending groceries and goods to us; local people in Bayramic were shopping for us. Our life there was entirely thanks to the solidarity we received from all over Turkey. The challenging parts, of course, were being away from home, the continuous process of vigilance, and the pressure given by the law enforcement drones flying all the time. There was vague pressure at first, but then they intensified the pressure.
We protested at the entrance of the mine to tell the company, “Look, we are watching you,” and broadcasted so that we could provide information to the public. In the process, the company couldn't really work, and as soon as they saw us, they immediately pulled their vehicles back. After about a year like this, the terms of Alamos Gold’s operating licenses expired, and were not renewed. No logging was carried out, thanks to the great response and the continuation of our vigil. The company tried to illegally clear trees a few times—they wanted to prepare the area in the hope that its license would be renewed—but according to mining laws, no activity can be done if the license is not renewed.
After one year and Alamos Gold's operating license had not been renewed, their containers and vehicles were parked. Even if they couldn't work, we stubbornly kept watching. Because as soon as we left, they could work again, so the company and the government could renew the license immediately. There was no guarantee they wouldn’t. We intended to stay until they left, and we stayed for the duration of the pandemic. Fines of close to ₺600,000 (about €28,965) were issued to people who stood guard We were severely fined. We made objections; some of them were accepted, but we had to pay some of them. Again, we did this with solidarity from all over Turkey.
But despite this, we did not leave, arguing, “There are no sanctions on the company. You do not get the company out of there, but you try to get us out of the forest area even though we do not show any violent tendencies.” There was an investigation into “occupying the building” because we repaired that ruined forest building, putting nylon on its roof and spending the winter there.
I remember that it was the first year of the shift, in Çanakkale, when we wanted to make a press release to emphasize that Alamos Gold is still not gone, they have not left the field. Although we did not make the press release on the grounds of the pandemic, we were interviewed and detained by law enforcement forces who wanted to intimidate us. A few months later, about 200 gendarmes responded to the watch area. The Yaşam Savunucuları, a local environmental political association, who were there at the time were detained and removed from the area. The building was burned to the ground in just over an hour. All of our belongings were thrown out of the area. That's how our shift ended after 425 days, but Alamos Gold is out of the region now.
Did different forms of environmental activism follow in the footsteps of the Kazdağları resistance in Turkey? Can we draw a line of affinity between the Chipko's ecofeminist actions in India in 1973 and the Kazdağları resistance?
When we started the vigil for the Kazdağları, environmental activism was a heated practice, really. The Gezi Park protests* in 2013 planted the first seeds of resistance, but Kazdağları occupation was the action that really made a big noise. Our protest was seen as hope in Turkey and we were in solidarity with many other areas in the country. A network was established from north to south, east to west, and Kazdağları.
We were following a path of resistance, similar to the one in India. Women were at the forefront of the Kazdağları resistance, both in organizing and planning. We opposed the mine in a completely peaceful, nonviolent manner, organizing a walk every morning and every evening through the forest, about a mile and a half from the mine gate, where the company's machinery stops. We were trying to raise our voices against all ecological destruction: not just the Kazdağları or in Turkey, but globally. The community formed by that watch was called Everywhere is Kazdağları. That's the name of the voice that came out of there.
After Alamos Gold’s mining permission was withdrawn, did the municipality take any measurement for reclaiming the area? Did activists have a voice on that?
After reclaiming the site, we wanted it to be rehabilitated. We're still tracking it. Our main concern now is that the site really is rehabilitated by scientific methods. It is not possible only by planting trees, unfortunately. Embankment is required; the excavated topsoil needs to be laid back again in some parts. It's actually very big and costly. We have now submitted petitions to the forest regional directorate, the General Directorate of Forestry, and we keep bringing the question to the attention of the public.
The last time we went to the mining site, we received a response from the Regional Directorate of Forestry that research was being carried out in the field; they’re working on bureaucracy related to the rehabilitation of the area, and when all these processes are over, they’ll start returning the forest to its former ecological life, but we are still waiting for this. There's no work on the site at the moment. It's been completely evacuated. In fact, in places where trees have been cut down but the soil has not dried up, nature is already growing on its own, not waiting for human bureaucracy to be resolved.
Alamos Gold’s failure to renew its license in Kirazlı also resulted in the cancellation of its other two projects. Their aim was to start working in Kirazlı and then move on to the Ağı Mountain and a logging project in Çamyurt, a hill on the Kazdağları. Now, since stopping in Kirazlı, the project of logging on Mount Ağı—a region on the Kazdağları—never started. So, not only did Kirazlı survive thanks to this resistance, but the Ağı Mountain project did, too. Alamos Gold is gone, but unfortunately, other companies; other projects keep coming.
Eighty percent of the Kazdağları area is licensed to mine by the state. If all these licenses are approved, there would be no Kazdağları. It would disappear forever. Kirazlı was, for us, a fortress; the place where we're fighting side by side against the greed of international companies.
According to the news platform Bianet in February 2022, the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in response to the parliamentary question regarding the rehabilitation works of Kirazlı Balaban Hill in Kazdağları, stated that the natural species of the area were larch, red pine and oak, and that the rehabilitation process to be carried out after the completion of the survey-project studies will be carried out by the General Directorate of Forestry. Even if the response did not include any other details or information(4), the activists are still there and keep resisting against extractivist greed and asking for international solidarity.
I would like to thank Ferzan Aktaş, an activist from the Kazdağları Kardeşliği initiative, for her interview, and Zeynep Türkmen for establishing this connection. Additionally, I would like to thank Prof. Elisa Bertuzzo for her proofreading.
*On May 28, 2013, a wave of demonstrations and civil uprising began in Turkey to protest against the urban development plan for Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park. The Gezi Park movement in 2013 was one of the most significant civilian movements in Turkish political history. For weeks, hundreds of people camped in the park, putting together their ideas and energy not only to refuse Erdogan’s gentrification plans for the city but also against a general restriction of liberties, media propaganda and police repression. People experienced with forms of sharing that banned the use of money and they started discussing questions related to humanity and the environment. In a very short time, the momentum of this movement spread to all provinces of Turkey. In all cities, people gathered in parks and experienced the practices in Istanbul.
1. Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development, 1988
2. Excerpt from the book of Vandana Shiva, Oneness vs. The 1% Shattering Illusions, Seeding Freedom, 2020
3. The Las Tesis dance
From the Kazdağları resistance movement.